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Post–Sharjah Biennial 10: Institutional Grease and Institutional Critique


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In 1971, a solo exhibition by German artist Hans Haacke, planned to take place at the Guggenheim in New York, was censored due to the artist’s intention to exhibit a work titled Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. One of the most discussed works of the 1970s, the piece brings together Haacke’s research on slumlord Harry Shapolsky’s real estate holdings in Manhattan. A series of over 140 photographs of run-down blocks of residential buildings displayed with detailed data from public records clearly exposed the NYC’s real-estate tycoon families’ monopoly over those slums. The Guggenheim decided to shut down the exhibition because it was deemed inappropriate. Rumors circulated that Guggenheim trustees might have been implicated in those dodgy financial dealings. The exhibition’s curator, Edward Fry, was then fired, and apparently never worked in the US again. Of course, Haacke’s work was not conspiratorial, as some had conjectured, but was a diligent archival excavation that has since become exemplary for the forms of institutional critique circulating at a time when self-organized artist initiatives abounded in New York.

Flash forward to 2011. Arab countries that have been enduring the legacy of colonialism and the backbreaking ideologies of the 1950s and 60s are revolting against decades of dictatorship. First the multitude of Tunis rises against Ben Ali, then Egypt overthrows Mubarak, and now Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen…. The results of these struggles are still uncertain as NATO and American forces (not to mention internal security forces and tribal leaders) react in the spirit of the times, catching on to the so-called intelligence oversights, and initiating campaigns of bloody intervention. However, what was noted as singular, inspiring, and unprecedented about these revolts was the degree of spontaneous and organic self-organization. Without a leader, commander, or traditional political party hierarchies, hundreds of thousands of bodies descended into capital cities and town centers and invented new economies of exchange, assistance, and expertise—be they medical, visual, or linked to basic sustenance on the streets.[footnote As a side note, Lebanon is seen by many as an exception to these mass demonstrations to bring down the old guard, as it struggles to form a government, stuck as it is between the status quo of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions/politicians. And when obedient partisans do take to the streets, it’s more often than not in support of one of the two distinct alliances ruling the country in different guises for almost as long as the country existed, and thus, in the words of historian Faisal Devji, cancel each other out. Further south-east near the Persian-Arab Gulf, recent Gulf and international media have released news bulletins regarding the tracking down and detention of bloggers, activists, and even academics demanding free elections and the creation of political parties in these autocratic emirates.] Even more recently, images from protests in Spain, albeit stemming from a very different set of crucial demands vis-à-vis the state, have been notable in the way they similarly portray self-organized, networked, collaborative, and mobile forms of action—also equally leaderless and still ongoing.

In the meantime, related battles are being fought on the terrain of art and culture. Billions of petro- and real estate dollars have made it possible to invest in bringing mega art institutions, such as the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and Christie’s to Abu Dhabi and its environs. As has been clear to many, the massive interest and investment in the art of the region (whether the Arab region or the Middle East in particular) is turning it into an asset class of its own, a new commodity, in surprising and sometimes less-surprising ways. Yet this burgeoning interest (both locally and internationally) in the category of Arab art sometimes goes beyond mere market trends, and evinces not only a familiar form of political control, but has always been, for many critics and commentators, the other arm of foreign policy, exerting its power through cultural politics.[footnote Irrespective of the type and interest of the work shown here, note how Ministries of Foreign Affairs mandate their cultural centers in Arab cities, often perpetuating their colonial legacy as the new cultural outpost. Paris and London being two such epicenters, with the French Cultural Centers and British Councils. ]

Informed by modernist, universalist discourse following World War II, as well as the rise of capitalist and globalization discourses in more recent decades, the ideological forces driving the field of art have become many-sided and increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Roughly, on the one hand there is the art market composed of collectors, buyers, dealers, investors, and auction houses; on the other, there are the local and international donor agencies, private funders, promoters, audiences, and artist projects. Add to this a third body of centralized cultural policy-making and state-sponsored art, and it becomes clear that these various interests cannot be easily separated. Although foreign and domestic cultural policy in the arts is not a new political phenomenon (for it includes the World Fairs of the nineteenth century, the support of Abstract Expressionists in the modern period, through to the biennials, triennials, and the dubbing of a transnational category of art today[footnote For instance, consider the 1970 Biennial of Alexandria, the 1974 First Arabic Biennial of Baghdad, and the 1975 Biennial of Arab Countries of Kuwait, to name a few examples of state-sponsored interests and promotion of art in the so-called Arab region.]), let us be clear about an age-old and inevitable relationship between art (its production, exhibition, not to mention its existence) and money. Yet could and should the idea and the category of art be understood solely under these terms?

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